(A few notes on the Wildcats’ 74-49 win over the Puerto Rican nationals written while choking back the disappointment of not making the trip to the Bahamas…)
John Calipari’s mildly-offered prediction that his team would fail to win a game dissolved early in the second half, in a flurry of Kentucky baskets and active defense.
Calipari, as promised, worked his bench as though he were coaching hockey, sending in new line shifts whenever he saw fit. The fact that the UK backups held or extended the league in most cases should excite Big Blue fans, although we’ll find out more during the next game. The team from France, apparently, is better than the ballclub Kentucky dispatched on Sunday.
Aaron Harrison led the way with 15 points. His brother added four, plus a like number of assists and rebounds. After delighting Wildcat fans by returning for a second year, it seems clear both are sitting on huge seasons. Calipari told us before they left that the twins are leaner and more mature, that the sour body language is all but gone.
And imagine if you were the opposing point guard, preparing to take on Kentucky. You study video and try to figure out how to handle 6-foot-5, 205-lb. Andrew. And then you have to handle his backup, 5-foot-9 Tyler Ulis, quick-on-quick who made his presence known immediately on Sunday. Ulis missed four of his five shots and his only free throw try, but he dished out five assists, grabbed three boards and made two steals, giving Calipari the kind of depth at the point he’s coveted since the 2012 championship year.
And while we’re talking scouting, you have to smile when you think about opposing coaches who look at the UK roster and scan the sizes. Calipari has seven players who are 6-8 or taller and the “smallest” one was big in the Bahamas. Alex Poythress had the kind of game that has Big Blue fans longing for an entire year of such performances. The junior from Clarksville, TN., in 22 minutes put up 10 points, six rebounds and a block, showing the athletic explosiveness that convinced Calipari to bring him to Lexington.
One of the other big(ger) men likewise scored in double digits. Karl-Anthony Towns racked up 10 points and seven rebounds in his first game as a Wildcat. Maybe more impressive were the two assists the Gatorade 2014 Player of the Year dished out. Kentucky’s big men seemed to relish the chance to look for each other in the paint, which speaks to the time the Wildcats spent in the gym before practices began, playing pickup games and learning what to expect from each other.
Marcus Lee picked up where he left off in last spring’s NCAA Tournament, tallying nine points, grabbing six rebounds, sinking four of his six shots. Before the Cats left, Lee told WKYT that his all-tournament performance last March only made him want to work harder. Mission, it seems, accomplished.
Dakari Johnson had six and six in 22 minutes, Derek Willis proved he’s more than practice fodder and Dominique Hawkins had a couple of assists in his 18 minutes.
It was a good start, a tiny step in a trip that, if they reach their goal will be far longer than last year’s, thanks to the late-summer start. But there figure to be fun nights ahead, especially when Kentucky has an opponent over-matched and Calipari can juggle his bench.
There are five more games in Nassau, and now we get to see if this young team can put up a similar effort without benefit of first-game adrenaline, against a more challenging foe, with less than 24 hours rest.
It’s all part of the learning process for the youngsters, but there’s more than enough experience on this team that can help them get through it, and have more fun – the kind they had on Sunday.